Intricacies of Social Movement Outcome Research and Beyond: "How Can You Tell" Social Movements Prompt Changes?

by Doowon Suh
Korea University

Sociological Research Online, 17 (4) 3

Received: 20 Mar 2012     Accepted: 18 Jul 2012    Published: 30 Nov 2012


Most scholars of social movements have been drawn to research on the politically contentious behavior of collective actors because of the conviction that social movements sometimes generate significant historical progress and social change. Yet movement outcome research has been least developed in the literature. This irony emanates from methodological and causal intricacies that fail to clearly explicate how social movements create change. The challenges encompass the heaped typologies, mutual inconsistencies, causal heterogeneities, and conflictive evaluation criteria of movement outcomes. To overcome these quandaries, this paper proposes that (1) any attempt to find an invariant model or general theorization of a movement outcome is inevitably futile; (2) instead, attention to the specific context of time and place in which social movements produce outcomes is necessary; and (3) a comprehensive understanding of the origins of a movement outcome becomes possible when multiple variables are considered and their combined effects are analyzed.

Keywords: Intricacies of Social Movement Outcome Research, Heaped Typologies, Mutual Inconsistencies, Causal Heterogeneities, Conflictive Evaluation Criteria, No Invariant Model, Diachronic Perspective, Multiple Conjunctural Causality


1.1 Social movement scholars have long lamented the dearth of systematic and comprehensive explanations of how social movements change social, cultural, and political systems (Burstein, Einwohner, and Hollander 1995; Giugni 1999; Tarrow 1998). This is ironic given that researchers are usually drawn to social movement study based on the tacit assumption that social movements are an important variable for social transformation (Giugni 1999). Amenta (2006:14) asserts, ‘All social movements are born seeking social change, often through state action.’ Yet since the 1990s, research on movement outcomes has proliferated (for a review, see Amenta et al. 2010). A growing body of literature shows that social movements sometimes bring about significant and diverse changes under specific organizational and structural conditions. Nevertheless, illuminating the relationship between social movements and social changes in a scientifically and systematically rigorous manner has been relatively underexplored, and the study of movement outcomes is still plagued by inherent methodological, causal, and theoretical intricacies (Amenta and Caren 2004). As Giugni and Bosi (2012:20) note, ‘The study of social movement outcomes . . . is one of the most problematic areas of inquiry in the field of collective action. A number of theoretical and methodological obstacles are connected with this.’ Amenta (2006:6) summarizes these obstacles as: ‘how can you tell’ to what extent, under which circumstances, and how much social movements produce personal, organizational, and socio-structural changes? After examining these challenges, this article suggests alternative and innovative perspectives on how to conduct movement outcome research.

Challenges of Outcome Research

Heaped Typologies of Movement Outcomes

2.1 The domain of outcomes that social movements can generate is strikingly diverse, ranging from biographic through organizational to structural transformation (Amenta, Carruthers, and Zylan 1992; Burstein, Einwohner, and Hollander 1995; Giugni 1998; Kriesi et al. 1995; Sandoval 1998). Movement outcomes are neither monolithic nor uniform. Research encompasses a wide spectrum, from relatively narrow perspectives that examine how social movements influence the personal experiences of movement participants and the internal dynamics of social movements, to macro analyses that emphasize external outcomes of social, cultural, or political change (Klandermans 1989; Marks 1989; McAdam 1988; Rucht 1989; Staggenborg 1991; Voss 1993). Even in macro-structural changes caused by social movements, to which scholars have paid keener attention relative to micro- and meso-level results, the diverse consequences that social movement can possibly create are identified, as is well typified by the heaped typologies of movement outcomes (Burstein, Einwohner, and Hollander 1995; Gamson 1990; Giugni 1998; Kitschelt 1986; Kolb 2007; Offe 1987; Rochon and Mazmanian 1993). For example, Offe (1987) discerns three categories of social transformation that indicate social movement success. ‘Substantive’ success obtains when power-elite policy decisions align with movement demands; ‘procedural’ success occurs when policy-making involves movement participation; and ‘political’ success happens when political parties, government, or state institutions recognize social movements as representing collective interests.

2.2 Although changes in government policy are favored criteria for assessing movement outcomes because they are amenable to relatively easy empirical and positivist verification (Giugni 1999), this should not lead us to overlook other possible important impacts (Cress and Snow 2000). An exclusive focus on policy change neglects important structural changes in power relations, and systemic transformations as well as discursive and cultural shifts (Johnston and Klandermans 1995; Morris and Mueller 1992). Policy success can sometimes modify a structural environment but does not always lead to structural transformation. Instead, a structural change significantly constrains and facilitates the extent to which movement demands come into effect as laws and policies. Gamson (1998) argues that social movements’ cultural success in gaining public support or consensus on movement significance or goal legitimacy is critical to policy change. Policy success should not therefore be viewed as a precondition for structural change.

2.3 Unlike interest groups, social movement organizations seek to enhance public welfare as well as members’ private interests. Since a movement’s explicit goals may not directly correspond to benefits—to the movement or the public—achieved, it is important to look beyond the attainment of stated goals (Amenta and Young 1999). Social movements whose demands focus in a self-centered way on members’ individual interests or on the movement’s organizational gains can risk failing to contribute to collective public benefits, and may in fact act contrary to general welfare. Social movements with a great potency for realizing their goals can paradoxically generate a socially negative outcome. Then, social movements become liable to lose their raison d’être and to advocate ‘collective egoism’ at the expense of public welfare.

2.4 Notwithstanding the scrupulous categorization of movement outcomes, some dimensions of social movement consequences have not been much scrutinized. In general, most movement outcome research has focused on ‘external’ and ‘intended’ consequences. Social movements do not always succeed in accomplishing their goals. Moreover, the ‘unintended consequences’ of social movements can create outcomes inconsistent with or even contrary to movement demands (Amenta and Young 1999; Giugni 1999). This mirrors Weber’s (1958) famous dictum of the ‘paradoxical results of action’ (Paradoxie der Folgen) that analyzes how ascetic Protestants unintentionally contributed to the capitalist accumulation of wealth, well outlined in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Indeed, Piven and Cloward’s (1977) research on poverty relief movements in the United States shows that at times the movements gained more compromise from the state than they sought, though obviously they more frequently gained less. Unintended consequences produce no less significant socio-political and cultural impacts than the intended ones do. For example, radical movements have spawned a countermovement backlash and provoked severe state repression—leaving a curvilinear relationship between movement success and countermovement attack (Andrews 2004)—which often deters movement activism and results in dispute, schism, fragmentation, and separation of social movement organizations. Fortuitously, however, movement vitality and solidarity improve and state legitimacy wanes as social movements easily garner strong support due to the negative public opinion toward such brute state oppression (Hirsch 1990). Another good example of an unintended consequence is ‘social movement spillover’ (Meyer and Whittier 1994; Minkoff 1997). Increasing pro-choice movements in the 1960s-1970s in the United States promoted pro-life movements, and feminist activism was heavily influenced by the growth of civil rights movements from the early 1960s, and later contributed to the rise of peace movements (Snow and Soule 2010). In short, the current social movement literature presents relatively little research on unintended consequences, which means it excludes important outcome domains. Future research must further address not only the achievement of explicitly stated objectives but also unintended consequences (Andrews 1997). Giugni and Bosi (2012:22) stress, ‘The issue of unintended and perverse effects is related to the problem of the often very narrowly defined concepts of success and failure.’ Yet ‘movements often have the greatest effect . . . not by meeting [or failing to meet] stated goals, but by bringing about other, unintended outcomes’ (p. 23).

2.5 Another understudied area of movement outcome is ‘internal’ consequences. The consequences that social movements bring about not only affect society but also influence movements and organizational members. As a social phenomenon that undergoes a cycle of change, social movements’ trajectories and dynamics alter and are profoundly conditioned by past experiences. History matters for social movements, in that the consequences of collective attempts to achieve pronounced goals or to reform social institutions and structures beget a change in subsequent movement dynamics regardless of whether or not social movements are successful in attaining stated goals. When successful, movement participants tend to hold a stronger sense of the efficacy of collective action, which prompts further mobilization (McAdam 1982). By contrast, when their efforts prove to be futile, actors’ collective identity and solidarity can even be strengthened, as long as they do not question the future success of collective action and attribute the source of failure to the attack of countermovements (Suh 2004; Taylor and Raeburn 1995; Voss 1993). Giugni and Bosi (2002) point to these changing power relations—e.g., increasing competition among movement organizations or groups—as an example of an internal political effect of a movement outcome. Yet, in general, as Beckwith (2009) laments, ‘very few social movement scholars have attempted to assess the impact of specific outcomes upon movements themselves; that is, the cumulative, recursive impact of outcomes on movements.’ One exception is Taylor’s (1989) analysis of the U.S. women’s movement after its victory of gaining women’s suffrage in 1920. After this triumph, the American women’s movement experienced a period of the doldrums in unpropitious political environments. Though seemingly invisible between 1945 and 1960, the women’s movement was, however, able to maintain its continuity and contribute significantly to its revival in the 1960s by connecting activists’ networks, sustaining repertoires of goals and tactics, and promoting a feminist collective identity. This echoes Tarrow’s (1998:51) claim that ‘the doldrums following a period of mass mobilization . . . can disguise a slow and capillary process of cultural transformation that leaves a heritage of values and practices for the next cycle of protest’ (cf. Sawyers and Meyer 1999). If we borrow Andrews’s (2004:6) words, ‘there is continuity between the heyday of movement activity and the period of movement decline.’

Mutual Inconsistencies of Movement Outcomes

2.6 The glaring multidimensionality of movement outcomes requires sophisticated categorization of them in order to have rigorous analysis; however, diverse and detailed classification of movement outcomes compounds analytic difficulties because multiple movement outcomes are not always consistent with each other. For example, power elites could embrace movement demands and provide concessions yet exclude movements from decision-making (substantive success but procedural failure), or vice versa, which raises the question of how to conduct an overall assessment of a movement outcome based on objective standards. Gamson (1990) defines the former case as ‘preemption’ and the latter as ‘cooptation.’ Diverse movement outcomes are often related, but the modality of linkages among them is far from uniform; rather, it is variable (Gamson 1990). Achievement of movement goals implemented as government policies or legislative bills, for instance, does not necessarily guarantee the provision of collective goods to movement beneficiaries and the public. Conversely, failure in the former does not necessarily preclude success in the latter; the former can promote or impede the latter. Or, no clear connection can be found between the two (Amenta and Young 1999). For example, Amenta’s (2006) analysis of the U.S. Townsend Movement in the early 1930s shows that, although the movement’s campaign for a pension-recovery plan for the aged failed to be passed, it ultimately provided collective benefits to the public when the Roosevelt government enacted the Social Security Act in 1935, in response to the cause advocated by the movement. Further, Mansbridge (1986) argues that despite its unsuccessful attempt at implementing the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s, the American women’s movement gathered valuable momentum in raising the consciousness of movement participants, strengthening its organizational capacity, and promoting legislative and judicial action of the movement. An opposite example is the historical case that American women’s movements waned, rather than thrived, after they obtained suffrage in 1920.

2.7 The inconsistent relationship among movement outcomes is also found in the argument that the influence of social movements on political democracy diverges among disparate types of social movements, in that, for example, labor movements promote ‘distributive democratization’; student movements contribute to ‘ideological democratization’; and new social movements facilitate ‘participatory democratization’ (Giugni 1998). Or, in a certain movement outcome, some movements succeed, while others fail. Rochon and Mazmanian’s (1993) study indicates that in gaining access to a policy process and ultimately achieving stated goals as a policy, American environmental movements were successful but anti-nuclear movements were not. Some scholars even argue that multifaceted movement outcomes are sometimes reciprocally contradictory: there can be a tradeoff between them. Bush (1992) contends that the institutional success of gender policy and the structural change of gender equality are mutually conflictive. She argues that Western women’s movements were largely successful in gaining access to institutional policy processes, and as a consequence assisted the legalization and legitimation of a plethora of gender-related laws and policies. Nonetheless, such institutional reform was limited to what she denotes as ‘failure through success,’ and blunted the impact and power of the women’s movement because its institutional victory failed to coerce the state, which was created as gendered by nature, to address and resolve the fundamental cause of gender inequality. By contrast, Flesher Fominaya’s (2010) comparative study that examines the formation of collective identity among three global justice movement groups in Madrid, Spain, testifies to another oxymoron—’success through failure.’ The failed collective attempts of the global justice movement by any objective measure inadvertently led to ‘a strengthening of movement collective identity through building up a shared history of having weathered difficulties together’ (Flesher Fominaya 2010:399). To recapitulate, in addition to the multidimensionality of movement outcomes, the study of movement impacts is often complicated because movement outcomes are not only differential (e.g., procedural, political, and structural consequences) but also can be mutually antithetical (e.g., policy success and structural failure).

Causal Heterogeneities of Movement Outcomes

2.8 In a book that examines the impact of the U.S. civil rights movement, Andrews (2004:20) suggests, ‘The general framework I propose for conceptualizing and selecting outcomes and the main challenges to studying the impact of social movements are the same regardless of whether one is studying political, social, or cultural impacts’ (emphasis added). This can be the case; however, such various consequences of social movements often occur under disparate causal mechanisms and conditions—indicating likely causal heterogeneity for each movement outcome. For instance, the conditions for achieving the goal of publicizing agendas congruent with movement claims in a policy-making process may differ from those for successfully enacting the agendas as actual policies (Burstein, Einwohner, and Hollander 1995). Disruptive and contentious mobilization of collective action often proves effective in the initial setting of policy agendas, as Piven and Cloward’s (1977) analysis of the American poor people’s movement shows, but for enacting and implementing policies, institutionalized tactics and strategies of negotiating with and persuading policy-makers within the polity can be more apt, as is well suggested by Banaszak’s (2010) study of the U.S. women’s movement.

2.9 Furthermore, because what constitutes and affects structural change is so comprehensive, an important question of causality remains unresolved if critical variables other than social movements that influence social transformation are ignored in analysis (Andrews 1997; Giugni 1999; Sandoval 1998; Tarrow 1994). That is, the impact of social movements cannot be analyzed without undertaking the daunting task of controlling all other potentially influencing factors. ‘The dilemma of causal attribution,’ Giugni and Bosi (2012:22) attest, ‘seems the most fundamental problem in this field of research.’ They continue that ‘the problem of determining causality in movement outcomes poses a major difficulty in disentangling the role of protest from other factors’ (p. 23). Based on the quantitative data that cover the period between 1956 and 1979 in the United States, Soule et al. (1999) empirically tested the conventional argument that women’s movements increased the legislative support of women’s issues. Their findings revealed that the relationship is not causal but spurious. It was growing female labor-force participation that assisted women’s movements and improved women’s status. Even were this methodological challenge of nullifying spuriousness met, a major question about the causality between social movements and social change would remain. Although some research that used a sufficient number of systematically gathered cases and advanced statistical methods to clarify the relationship between social movements and social transformation has detected correlations (Gamson 1990), it cannot explain causation in the specific interaction and process that social movements go through to lead to social change (Amenta and Young 1999).

Conflictive Evaluation Criteria of Movement Outcomes

2.10 Many scholars assess movement outcomes based first of all on whether or not they meet the movement organization’s officially and explicitly stated objectives (e.g., Gamson 1990), and, second, on whether they bring about state policy changes amenable to movement objectives and contribute to collective benefits for the general public, including movement participants (e.g., Amenta 2006). These criteria are widely used and often quite helpful but have several limitations. First, dichotomized evaluation of a movement’s outcomes—success versus failure—based on the achievement of its explicit objectives is problematic because the subject of and criteria for evaluation are ambiguous and not fully taken into account (Amenta, Carruthers, and Zylan 1992). In particular, when studies analyze impacts on internal movement dynamics, they depend more on the ‘subjective’ experiences and assessments of movement participants than on the ‘objective’ consequences of collective action, and the subjective evaluations can vary greatly by person, place, and circumstance and diverge from the objective outcomes. Then, if the yardstick for subjective evaluation varies, participants’ judgments of objectively identical outcomes may diverge; or, conversely, participants may see objectively different outcomes as identical. Simply put, as Meyer (2006:202) claims, ‘no automatic relationship between actual and claimed or reputed achievements’ exists.

2.11 Touraine (1981) developed a method of ‘sociological intervention.’ When sociologists with an ‘objective’ and ‘scientific’ perspective intervene in social movements, such intervention mobilizes politically contentious collective action and influences its dynamics and consequences by assisting ‘incipient social movements in acquiring an ability to engage in self-analysis as a prelude to locating their sense of collective identity and their definition of opposition and domination to a larger societal totality which transcend the blinders of movement ideologies and elevates their consciousness to that of a system of historicity’ (Kivisto 1984:362). According to Touraine, sociologists have ‘the heroic mission of intervening in contemporary societal developments’ (Litmanen 2010:244), and the task of sociology is to be ‘the midwife of confrontations and the struggles to come’ (Bauman 1983:596). Touraine’s model aroused considerable controversy and was denounced as ‘a barely concealed sociological Leninism’ (Cohen 1982:216) and as ‘a new version of intellectual bolshevism’ (Rootes 1990:11). The role of ‘movement entrepreneurs’ is crucial for social movement emergence and development, of course, as resource mobilization theorists highlight. For movement dynamics, however, what is causal is not so much objective consequences and outsiders’ assessments as movement participants’ subjective appraisal of movement outcome.

2.12 In other words, when activists either succeed or fail in reaching their common objectives, what determines the future direction of movement is their subjectivity. Scott (1976) argues that experiences of movement failure discourage subsequent activities. According to Voss (1993), however, despite defeat, if activists are not doubtful about a chance for future success of collective actions, failure may not reduce their energy for remobilization but even strengthen it. Beckwith (2010) claims that how ‘defeat’ is understood—not ‘material outcome’—is crucial for future chances for victory, and elaborates: ‘Activists may understand loss not as a conclusive defeat, but as an instance of political learning that inspires tactical innovation, or as a moral vindication that provides the foundation for a second try, or as the spark that incites outrage and deepens commitment.’ Then, ‘A narrative of defeat constitutes a form of repeated discourse, linking selected events in causal sequence, within an identifiable timeframe, and drawing conclusions about the movement’s future.’

2.13 In contrast, McAdam (1982) argues that through success, movement supporters share a sense of efficacy, and this becomes an important factor to facilitate their movements. However, success can also have a deleterious effect on members’ continuing support for resistance when members simply settle for the present status quo, believing that achieving goals is no longer a top priority. Meyer (2006:209) points out, ‘Movements recognized as successful can provoke their opponents . . . and risk complacency among supporters.’ Moreover, though ‘movement leaders cannot be blamed for exaggerating the influence of their actions,’ and it is ‘central to their mission’ (Amenta 2006:239) to publicize any successes, ‘declaring a win risks embracing identification with mainstream allies and politics and forfeiting the urgency of their claims on supporters’ (Meyer 2006:210). Or, the number of potential adherents of social movements pursuing such successes can exceed a group’s limit to manage and thus thwart their organizational power (Gitlin 1980). And since, as we have seen, subjective rather than objective evaluations more directly influence internal dynamics outcomes, through protest events and their consequences, ‘new tactics are experimented with, signals about the possibility of collective action are sent, feelings of solidarity are created, organizational networks are consolidated, and sometimes public outrage at repression is developed’ (della Porta 2008:27). This resembles what Melucci (1989) calls a ‘latent’ or ‘invisible’ phase of social movements in which all features that della Porta identifies are created and modified within the ‘submerged networks’ among multiple actors until a ‘visible’ moment of mobilization and confrontation of collective action arrives. Thus the relationship between the ‘visibility’ and ‘latency’ of social movements is reciprocal and interactive. An outcome study that lacks a persuasive account of the formation and characteristics of subjectivity is not credible (Giugni 1999); however, current social movement literature rarely offers such analysis.

Alternatives to Outcome Research

No Invariant Model

3.1 Given these problems inherent in movement outcome research, it seems desirable to determine the limits of research on specific movement outcomes and attempt to find clear and comprehensive causal factors and mechanisms of how the social movement brings about the identifiable outcome. As Tilly (1995) emphasizes, the pursuit of an invariant model of movement outcomes is untenable because it is unobtainable. Luders (2010:213) adds that ‘there is no singular path to movement victory . . . [and] search for singular causal processes is futile.’ As Cress and Snow (2000:1096) stress, social movements impact relies on ‘multiple pathways rather than . . . one surefire pathway or set of conditions.’ Since the multiple pathways are based on different causal conditions, any effort to make a general theory of movement outcomes and their causes is doomed to be in vain, as is epitomized by Paige’s (1975) book (Skocpol and Somers 1980). Rather than universal laws, ‘limited generalization’ that applies to specific circumstantial and historical contexts is more appropriate. This is especially so when group differences are more pronounced than similarities.

3.2 For example, in the course of democratization, discrepancies in political terrain between South and North America were clear. In the 1980s, while South America was in transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, North America was developing and transforming its long-standing democracies. Thus, the form and stage of democracy differed that each was in and that each was seeking. South America was transitioning from authoritarianism to liberal democracy, whereas North America was increasingly incorporating radical and participatory elements into its liberal democracy (Mainwaring and Viola 1984). Such inter-state differences create conspicuous variance in social movement characteristics, their historical and environmental background, and their potential roles and outcomes (Giugni 1999). Social movement impacts on democracy vary greatly by differences in polity configuration. We may assume that social movements promote the consolidation and advance of democratization when basic democratic rights are relatively guaranteed due to general public and power elite support for advancing democracy, as in North America. Conversely, when basic democratic rights are absent and neoliberal globalization is accelerating, as in 1980s South America, democratic agitation may arise from below and lead social movements to focus on a rapid transition to democracy: the role that social movements play in democratic consolidation is limited in such a context.

Diachronic Perspective and Temporal Context

3.3 The significance of temporality must be taken into account in outcome research. Often, scholars prioritize some movement outcomes over others, on the basis that those they are prioritizing tend to produce more sweeping and fundamental influences—e.g., they prioritize collective goods provision over policy implementation, or institutional change over concession of public goods (Amenta and Young 1999; Kolb 2007). Though quite plausible, this notion is, however, misguided if it is interpreted as insisting that, for example, policy implementation merely serves as a means to achieve the end of collective goods provision, or that ‘seemingly mundane’ current changes and consequences generated by social movements cannot produce any subsequent consequential societal changes. They can lead to more vital structural consequences later. Movement outcomes that are unobtrusive at present can affect long-term, encompassing social change in the future. By contrast, a ‘remarkably successful’ result of social movements can soon be ‘reversed and eroded.’ The French student movement in 1968 is a good example of a ‘temporary’ movement outcome: The contents of educational reform vanished shortly after the movement faded from the scene and the locus of politics shifted to the parliament. In other words, as Giugni and Bosi (2012:24) highlight, ‘Social movements that seem not to be achieving their explicitly stated goals at the policy level in the short term, for example, can gain cultural or biographical impacts that may be fundamental to subsequent political changes or victories in the long term. The reverse applies as well: immediate achievements may well vanish or be eroded in view of long-range developments.’

3.4 In this context, a diachronic perspective—sensitivity to a temporal context—is critical to assessing movement outcomes. Moreover, if social movements in fact follow a protest cycle of formation, development, and decline, then their impact on social transformation may temporally trail the responsible movement action. Indeed, the movement may by then be in decline or subject to some other change. As Tarrow (1994:172) suggests, ‘indirect and long-term effects . . . emerge when the initial excitement is over and disillusionment passes.’ That is, political and institutional impacts do not necessarily coincide immediately with the civil and political events and social movement activities that produce them, but may require a time lag before they occur or are apparent (Andrews 1997). Authorities do not always react instantaneously and straightforwardly to movement demands. Rochon and Mazmanian (1993:77) emphasize that ‘policies attributable to movement influence are adopted after the movement is no longer active!’

3.5 Moreover, long- and short-term outcomes of social movements can diverge. For example, while the American feminist movement at the beginning of the nineteenth century abandoned the political scene upon rapid post-Civil War industrialization, without meaningful short-term achievements, it nevertheless served as the historical inspiration for the resurgence of the second-wave feminist activism that began in the early 1960s (Tarrow 1994). A protest cycle and an outcome impact cycle do not necessarily coincide but can be separated by a significant temporal gap. Therefore, in outcome research it is necessary to ‘examine the movement’s impacts on outcomes over a long time period to assess the durability of movement impacts and to identify consequences that do not emerge at the peak of movement conflict’ (Andrews 2004:39). It may then be untenable to maintain a ‘presentist’ attitude—that is, to apply contemporary perspectives in explaining past events, rather than placing these events in their historical context; indeed, analysis of movement outcomes cannot help but be ‘retrospective,’ precisely because ‘loss evaluated within an ongoing campaign may turn out to be less of a loss than initially anticipated, or restricted to a minor component of the overall campaign, or the location of a hinge in a social movement’s collective action repertoire’ (Beckwith 2009).

Multiple Conjunctural Causality

3.6 Movement outcome analysis basically concerns the complex patterns of interaction among various political forces directly or indirectly involved in social movement processes. While some scholars emphasize a direct relationship, most consider the impact of social movements on social transformation to be indirect, non-linear, and multidimensional (Sandoval 1998; Tilly 1994). Internal factors such as the form of collective action, nature of collective demands, and organizational attributes influence movement outcomes. According to Andrews (2004:22-23), ‘the autonomy and continuity of the infrastructure are key factors explaining the long-term viability and impact of the movement, sustaining a movement through shifts in the broader political environment.’ However, complex environmental factors external to social movements are critical as well (Sandoval 1998). For instance, Luders (2010) argues that the responses of movement targets’ perceived costs of disruption (stemming from violent collective action) and concession (acceding to movement demands) determine movement outcomes. When analyzing outcomes, understanding a social movement’s external situation is as important as defining its internal character and external leverage: ‘external resources often entail obligations that can constrain the movement’s strategy and tactics and increase the chance of co-optation’ (Andrews 2004:24). That is, the internal collective power of social movements may be essential to certain movement outcomes but not sufficient to bring them about in and of themselves (Amenta, Carruthers, and Zylan 1992).

3.7 However, some scholars overplay the role of exogenous variables generally referred to as ‘political opportunity structures,’ with a particular stress on government responses to and attitudes toward social movement demands (Kitschelt 1986; Pedriana 2004; Roberts 1997; Schock 1999). For example, Tarrow (1998) argues that differences in ‘intervening variables’ (external environmental factors) that lie between the social movement and its outcome more adequately explain movement outcome diversity than do differences in ‘independent variables’ (internal organizational attributes). Thus, depending on the situation, the most militant social movement could simply fade away or be reduced to an insignificant resistance organization, or, conversely, it could evolve into an effective, viable movement. Similarly, Goldstone (1998) suggests that variance among state responses to social movements is more causative of divergence in the degree and form that collective action takes—for example, reformative vs. revolutionary movements—than are differences in movements’ historical origins that bear on their character and orientation. Situations where the state grants movements legitimacy foster relatively tame social movements, whereas state repression foments radical revolutions whose success or failure naturally depends on the repression’s effectiveness. Thus, according to Goldstone, historical factors such as the original form, purpose, and character of social movements are irrelevant to the impact that social movements can have in specific environmental circumstances. Indeed, those specific conditions are what determine movements’ character and effectiveness.

3.8 Although political structures critically circumscribe movement outcomes, the structuralist verities examined above must be balanced by incorporating views that respect the impact of contenders’ voluntary choices of movement tactics/strategies and leadership as well as the external enforcements surrounding them. Tilly (1994) argues that, except for unusual political situations such as revolutionary settings, since social movements’ political and social capacity is generally inferior to that of those whom they face (mostly the state), they can advance a political change enhancing democracy only if they are solidly organized and if their counterparts have the ability and propensity to realize their demands. Therefore, although social movements sometimes directly, even militantly, challenge state power, most often they adopt more subtle, indirect methods that encourage and induce rather than coerce the government to adopt policies resonant with movement demands. But, as Amenta (2006:6) correctly points out, ‘Any arguments about the effectiveness of strategies by themselves, taken out of context, might be misleading.’ This view supports the argument that social movements are basically political interactions of challenge and response among various forces, in which diverse and constant tactical interactions—the ‘tactical innovation’ of contenders and the ‘tactical adaptation’ of countermovements, in McAdam’s (1983) terms—operate. The nature of such interactions and relationships, and the responsiveness of movement counterparts, determine movement outcomes (Goldstone 2004). That is, movement outcomes are contingent and conjunctural on the structural opportunities/constraints and strategic capacities of organizational leadership. The influence of political opportunities on movement outcomes is without doubt crucial but mediated. As Ganz (2009:9, 10) convincingly illustrates, opportunities ‘in themselves do not create outcome,’ yet ‘One strategizes to turn opportunities into outcomes. . . [and] strategists may turn short-term opportunity into long-term gain.’ But movement organizations and their leadership can turn the potential influence of political opportunity structure into an actual effect only when they both understand imposed opportunities as a chance to maximize a movement influence and have the organizational capacity to capture and utilize them. The trajectories of social movements and their influences are thus not structurally reducible, teleologically destined, or completely voluntary, but instead result from the complex interplay of strategic/tactical choices under structural constraints and resources. To summarize, a particular causative structure in which various types of social relations (both organizational and structural) blend at a specific historical juncture explains movement outcomes (Giugni 1999).


4.1 Research on movement outcomes has been relatively underexplored compared to the study of movement emergence and development. This does not stem from social movement scholars’ lack of attention to the subject but reflects inherent major hurdles in explaining how social movements matter for biographic, organizational, and structural changes. In fact, students of social movements are no less interested in the analysis of movement consequences than in that of movement growth and progress, because they believe that social movements are at times one of the critical mechanisms of societal transformations. Yet the paucity of theorization of movement outcomes is due to the methodological and causal challenges that have long plagued researchers.

4.2 It is a vexing problem to systematically categorize movement outcomes, simply because they are so diverse. They cover macro-structural outcomes, such as political democratization and legislation of welfare laws and policies; meso-organizational outcomes, such as impeding or facilitating movement continuity and trajectories; and micro-biographic outcomes, as in the case of dramatic changes in movement participants’ life courses after they experience dynamic collective activism. Such multidimensionality of movement outcomes becomes more complicated when the ‘unintended’ consequences of social movements are taken into account. Social movement organizations do not always succeed in attaining stated goals. They not only sometimes fail but also produce consequences radically different from what they originally imagined. Such unintended consequences include ‘spillover’ effects on other social movement organizations, counterattacks or backlash from target groups, and internal feuds or schisms within a social movement organization. Unintended consequences often result in no less significant effects than the intended ones, but research on them has been largely neglected in the social movement literature.

4.3 Another sort of problem arises when the multiple domains of outcomes that social movements generate are mutually inconsistent. Some social movements are highly lauded in achieving their proclaimed goals as state policies and laws but not successful enough to fundamentally transform social structures that cause injustice, as seen, for instance, in the activities of feminist movements in the West. A contrasting example is the failure of initial collective efforts to legislate pension plans for the aged in the United States, which later resulted, in an unforeseen way, in the provision of collective goods to the public through the enactment of the Social Security Act under the Roosevelt administration. More often than not, an overall movement outcome is a mixture of success and failure, sometimes furnishes significant but not fully satisfactory collective goods to the public, and spawns eventual but perennial structural changes, although these are not evenly distributed in society.

4.4 These myriad and reciprocally conflictive social movement outcomes are often caused by distinctive causes. For example, conditions in democracy movements for toppling an authoritarian regime may differ greatly from the factors that lead to the successful enactment of anti-sexual-violence laws. While the former relies mostly on the mobilization of massive and violent collective action against dictatorial rule, the latter often derives from the strategic innovation of institutionalizing movement strategies and tactics to negotiate with the power elite (Suh 2011). Which factor is decisive in explaining a movement outcome is contextually variable. International influence, domestic structure, organizational power, or individual cognitive awareness—or a combination of all of them—can be critical, depending on the particular social movement investigated and the type of movement outcome sought. The causal heterogeneity of each movement outcome necessitates attending to a specific context in which social movements operate, thereby rendering causal structure contingent.

4.5 The last intricacy of outcome research is concerned with the mediation of framing in ‘internal’ movement outcomes. Social movement activities do not remain static but dynamically alter, in a process in which the consequences of collective attempts to achieve goals are highly influential. In this process, the impact of consequences of collective action is mediated by organizational members’ and leaders’ perception. It is not objective outcomes but subjectively perceived ones that modify movement dynamics. Depending on how organizational members evaluate the consequences, and to what source they attribute success or failure, movement strength can decline even after goals are attained as planned—or can accelerate even though collective efforts prove to be futile to realize goals. This requires inquiry into the formation and character of the frame that is utilized in interpretation and outcome source attribution; otherwise, we cannot discover why collective actors perceive a specific result of collective efforts in a particular way and how this framing of the result affects movement dynamics (Suh 2004).

4.6 The aforementioned intricacies have long hampered research on movement outcomes, though it has proliferated during the past ten years. A more sophisticated research design and an innovative methodological approach are needed to reveal the causality between social movements and social changes. The excessive diversity of outcome domains, mutual inconsistency among movement outcomes, and obtrusive heterogeneity of causal conditions make it virtually untenable to posit general theorization in outcome research. A more feasible scheme is to carefully attend to a particular context of time and place in which social movements occur, progress, and influence society, and to strive to theorize contingent causality pertinent to a specific spatio-temporal context. Social movement scholars are well aware of the importance of a spatial discrepancy, and thus often conduct a comparative study. What has drawn less attention to date is the gravity of a temporal dimension. Some conspicuous social changes generated by social movements, especially macro-structural transformations, often appear long after the activities of social movements are completed or even after their vibrancy wanes. A notable time gap in causality makes it imperative to search for a process-oriented and path-dependent approach, in which Sewell’s (1996) contribution of ‘eventful temporality’ proves profound. Along with this diachronic perspective, focus on multiple conjunctural causation is necessary. Different theoretical paradigms in the current social movement literature emphasize disparate variables in explaining outcomes—favorable political opportunities, powerful organizational infrastructures, and effective interpretive framings. Scholars have recently understood that each independent framework is necessary but insufficient for comprehensive analysis; therefore, multiple factors and their combined effects should be identified to verify the causal mechanisms of how social movements matter for social change. These are daunting challenges but not insurmountable ones (Luders 2010).


1Research was supported by a Korea University Grant.


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